With 54 nominally independent nation-states, thousands of languages and ethnic communities, dozens of contrasting governmental systems, more than a billion people with varying standards of living, etc., Africa is arguably the most diverse continent. There is strength in diversity, no doubt, but there is adversity in diversity too. Indeed, history is awash with stories of how Africa’s social heterogeneity, particularly ethnic and linguistic differences, was used by colonisers to play Africans off against each other in the service of colonial conquest and occupation. This diversity could mean that Africa may never attain the kind of unified political integration Kwame Nkrumah articulated in his I Speak for Freedom, published in 1961, but the continent’s governments and citizens can accomplish a great deal of cross-border cooperation and coordination in ways that can bolster Africa’s standing in the world.
Nkrumah’s ambitions for a united Africa were grand, perhaps even grandiose, and in some respects untenable, but he was undoubtedly ahead of his time in the way he saw the fate and future of African states. More than sixty years later, the fragmentation Nkrumah bemoaned at independence continues to bedevil the continent with no compelling solution in sight.
Colonial rulers marked out territorial political units for the expediency and convenience of colonial administration and exacting control on the natives. The colonial regimes of divide, rule and control, be they territorial or institutional, were, for the most part, kept intact at independence. The territorial status quo received legal guarantees under the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity, which was further deepened with the Cairo Declaration of 1964: maintaining that colonial borders were inviolable.
Retaining colonially created borders may have come from a selfish pursuit of power by new African political elites at independence, but it was also arguably borne of a pragmatism about the complications of trying to redraw borders and the turmoil this would most certainly have spawned.
However, with imperialistic interests lurking and given Africa’s precarious socioeconomic conditions, it is suicidal to stick to a rigid sense of national sovereignty and autonomy without finding and forging a collaborative Africa-wide system of tackling common problems, agendas and aspirations.
The critical issue was (and remains) not one of altering borders and amalgamating or rearranging political units; rather it is one of how to manage cross-border relations within the spirit of shared goals for a continent in urgent need of finding its footing and asserting a truly independent existence. Quite a few independence-time African leaders had the wisdom and foresight to see that Africa in its state of fragmentation was doomed. Yet, this matter occupied the imagination of Kwame Nkrumah. It was one he was so relentlessly invested in pursuing that he ended up paying the price of getting deposed from power.
In I Speak for Freedom, Nkrumah was both poignant and prescient, noting that ‘The political situation in Africa today is heartening and at the same time disturbing. It is heartening to see so many new flags [were] hoisted in place of the old; it is disturbing to see so many countries of varying sizes and at different levels of development, weak and, in some cases, almost helpless.’ If this terrible state of fragmentation is allowed to continue, the Osagyefo warned, ‘it may well be disastrous for us all.’
Since the African Union became the common platform for the continent in 2002, the elites of African states have huffed and puffed, put out this blueprint and the other, whether NEPAD or Agenda-2063, all aimed at pulling together the continent in order to achieve collective outcomes. Another of such programmes, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), promises a lot, but with the competing and contradictory regional economic communities and bilateral/multilateral arrangements of different countries all operating at cross-purposes, it faces serious challenges.
The real deal lies in the African people, the human and intellectual resources of the continent. Estimates suggest that in the next decade Africa will have up to a billion people in the working-age bracket, and as much as 60 per cent of the world’s workforce supply pool will be based in or come from Africa.
The demographic explosion that has been underway in the past decade or so can fuel Africa’s future or imperil its progress. The youth bulge can propel the continent or compound its already dire state. To harness the natural and especially the human resources of the continent, Africa must think beyond and across national boundaries. Hence, the Free Movement of Persons Protocol (Kigali) is more crucial to the success of the integration project than the AfCFTA itself.
Governments have to ease the movement of persons, not just goods and services. It is absurd that today, Europeans, Chinese and Americans can enter any African country as they will but a Ugandan like me goes through annoying and mostly unnecessary processes trying to get a visa to Ethiopia or Egypt.
Evidently, expanding African markets for African businesses, managing cross-border security problems including public health crises and the spectre of jihadism all require deliberate and concrete steps towards a more integrated and coordinated Africa. Moreover, subregional infrastructure projects like East Africa’s standard gauge railway should have been completed yesterday and would without a doubt make a huge difference in facilitating trade and commerce across the region’s state borders. But the political, economic, social and cultural benefits of the free movement of people are invaluable, although they remain somehow neglected, perhaps because they, unlike trade benefits, are intangible for the most part.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are pressing on with their belt and railway initiative, bringing on board different African countries. Western countries, as well as other emerging powers, are not far behind. In doing this and other pursuits, all these powers have their own long-term ambitions and hegemonic plans. Africa(ns) need to pursue the kinds of collective projects that deepen the continent’s connectivity and can advance the cause of integration in the service of African economic engagements. In this, the people, not (just) the goods and services, are central.